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'Bob Newhart Show' was perfect vehicle for button-down comic

POSTED: June 5, 2014 2:00 p.m.
Shout! Factory/

"The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series" is on DVD for the first time this week.

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Back in the1970s, during one season anyway, Saturday nights were TV comedy heaven on CBS.
The 1973-74 three-hour prime-time block was comprised of back-to-back smash hits: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Hard to believe, I know, considering that Saturday night on the major networks these days is the TV boneyard, where failed series go to burn off episodes and the schedule is often filled with reruns from the previous week.
But there was a time when it was an evening to gather around the boob tube (as it was called back in the day) and enjoy hearty laughs with some of the best comedy writing in television’s history.
All of those shows remain very funny, especially “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which have long been on DVD. But I have a particular fondness for “The Bob Newhart Show,” which my wife and I still rotate with a few other sitcoms we enjoy, even though the show’s last two seasons have never been on video. Until now.
This week, the Shout! Factory has released “The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series” (which ran from 1972-78) on DVD, complete with bounteous bonus features: the 1991 anniversary special, the never-before-shown original pilot episode, a featurette with surviving cast members interviewed, audio commentaries on selected episodes and a 40-page booklet/episode guide that has Newhart and the show’s creators reminiscing about how it all came together.
Shout! specializes in TV series that have a loyal fan base but don’t sell well enough to motivate the studios that own them to continue issuing season sets on DVD. Sometimes, Shout! will pick up later seasons of a show the studio has lost interest in, and sometimes an entire series set will turn up, like this one.
The first four seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show” have been on DVD for several years, but since Seasons 5 and 6 have been missing in action, fans will be especially excited about this set.
“The Bob Newhart Show” was the button-down stand-up comic’s first hit series, and it provided the perfect vehicle for his brand of down-to-earth, deadpan reacting to the madness going on around him. Newhart is like Jack Benny in that way, allowing his co-stars to have many of the best lines while he responds with a blank stare.
Newhart plays Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist living in a high-rise apartment with his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), an elementary school teacher. Newhart and Pleshette have palpable chemistry, and they play their characters as intelligent and strong. And though they have their ups and downs, they obviously love each other and aren’t afraid to say so.
Other series regulars are their obtuse next-door neighbor, airline-navigator Howard Borden (the hilarious Bill Daily), as well as two workplace friends, orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz) and receptionist Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace).
And an assortment of screw-loose recurring characters are led by Bob’s patients, the gloomy, sardonic Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley); the flighty, always-knitting Mrs. Bakerman (Florida Friebus); and the henpecked milquetoast Mr. Peterson (John Fiedler).
The show is superbly written and still holds up today as a funny domestic/workplace sitcom of the first order, with a cast that knows its way around a punchline but can also handle more serious subjects when they arise.
In the booklet, writer Vince Waldron makes a case that the show is often surreal and that absurdity is just the natural order of things. There’s some truth to that, but not in the sense that anything is terribly far removed from reality. It’s easy to identify with Bob and Emily in whatever situation is thrown at them.
In fact, it’s fair to say the writing is so smart that the show doesn’t really date much. Except for the outrageous 1970s clothing styles — plaid pants, bell-bottoms, flared collars, leisure suits, pastel colors — the show feels as contemporary as anything on the air today.
Newhart’s first TV series, also titled “The Bob Newhart Show,” was a variety show that ran from 1961-62. It was canceled after just one season, and then it won an Emmy as best comedy series. Newhart’s acceptance speech at the Emmys was hilarious, as he thanked those who voted for his show and then asked if anyone had a job for him.
But it also served to sour him on television, and it took a lot of prodding before he agreed to do this show a decade later — which you may find surprising since the comedian had two iconic sitcoms, the second being “Newhart” in the 1980s (which is also being released by Shout!, albeit on a season-by-season basis).
Many comics have sitcoms built around them but an awful lot of them flop. Others are fortunate enough to click with one. But it’s rare for a comedy star to have two long-running sitcoms that are equally beloved. (Lucille Ball had three!)
If you are young and only know Newhart from his (admittedly hilarious) recent appearances on “The Big Bang Theory,” you owe it to yourself to check out “The Bob Newhart Show.”
You’ll laugh. A lot.
And you may also notice that the humor is clean.
“The Bob Newhart Show” could get mildly suggestive here and there (this was one of the first sitcoms without twin beds for a married couple), but there’s nothing in the least bit raunchy. Nothing like today’s sitcoms, most of which are so laced with sexual gags that family viewing is off the table.
Actually, modern sitcom writers should be required to watch this show, if only to demonstrate that when the writing is good, you don’t need to go for cheap sexual or scatological gags.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com
Email: hicks@deseretnews.com

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